Russia’s foreign minister said Thursday that he believes the US may hope to use al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria to unseat Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Addressing an economic forum in St Petersburg, Sergey Lavrov argued that the reluctance of US-backed Syrian opposition groups to distance themselves from al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, has been a major reason behind continuing fighting.
He said the US could be “playing some kind of game here, and they may want to keep al-Nusra in some form and use it to topple the regime.”
Mr Lavrov added that he raised the issue in a recent phone conversation with US secretary of state John Kerry, who he said denied any such plans. “But why then the Americans with all their potential can’t force the units they have been working with to leave the territories controlled by bandits and terrorists,” he said.
Mr Lavrov was commenting on Mr Kerry’s warning that Washington is losing its patience with Russia, as the US and Russia-brokered ceasefire in Syria was at risk mainly due to violations by Assad’s forces with Russian air support.
The truce, which went into effect on February 27, has helped reduce hostilities in certain areas of the country, but fierce fighting has continued around Aleppo and in some other provinces. Nusra and the Islamic State group have been exempt from the truce.
Russia at some point issued an ultimatum for opposition units to leave Nusra-controlled areas or face air strikes, but later agreed to give more time for them to pull out. Spared the Russian strikes, Nusra has used the moment to replenish its supplies and receive reinforcements, Mr Lavrov said.
A senior US defense official said on Thursday that Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against US-backed Syrian forces. No US forces were involved and there were no details on the number of casualties, the official said.
The official said that Russian aircraft haven’t been active in that area of southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity.
The official said the strikes raise serious concerns about Russian intentions and that the US has asked Moscow for an explanation and assurances it won’t happen again. The official was not authorised to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Russian aircraft have not been active in this area of southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity,” the official said.
“Russia’s latest actions raise serious concern about Russian intentions. We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.”
Why is Russia bombing Syria? – Russia says the strikes are to defeat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). But most of their first strikes have been against non-Isil groups who are opposed to President Assad’s regime.
Why would Russia bomb non-Isil groups? – Russia’s spokespeople are sometimes vague – referring to Isil and terrorists in the same breath. By “terrorists” they mean the same as President Bashar al-Assad – anyone part of the armed opposition. The gravest threat to the regime’s core areas comes from non-Isil rebels.
What is Russia’s position on President Assad? – President Putin says he believes the survival of the Assad regime is very important. This is why it make sense for Russia to target non-Isil groups first.
Are the non-Isil groups being bombed actually terrorists? – Some of them are. The spectrum of opposition groups ranges from “moderate” brigades, backed by the US, to an alliance called Jaish al-Fatah – Army of Conquest – made up of hardline groups. The Jaish al-Fatah group includes Jabhat al-Nusra, aligned with al-Qaeda, so they are formally designated by the United Nations as terrorists.